America is finally catching up to what Angelenos have known—and happily devoured—for years. Many of today’s food trends took root in L.A.: the devotion to local, seasonal ingredients, readily available from year-round farmers’ markets. The eschewing of stiff Continental formality. (Your waiter is as likely to crouch beside your table and ask “you guys” what’s up.) The elevation of pop comfort foods—burgers, doughnuts, tacos, pizza—to creative new forms. Not least, the long-standing, citywide affection for traditional dishes from abroad (Salvadoran pupusas, Peruvian ceviche, Vietnamese pho), the sort of cooking the rest of us are wont to call “ethnic.” With its countless immigrant subcultures—most still serving the authentic foods of their homelands—L.A. is both the least obviously and the most definitively American city. It’s also, right now, the finest place in the nation to eat.
The city’s top new restaurant may not, at first, seem very L.A.: plain, boxy interior; “Don’t Fear the Reaper” on the stereo; and a menu of the pig-happy, nose-to-tail Dude Food you’d expect in Brooklyn or Chicago. But it’s the ethereal produce, not the protein, that raises Animal (dinner for two $100) to such dizzying heights. A plate of crackly pig’s ears—punctuated by chile-garlic paste and a gooey fried egg—comes on like an amp set to 11, but is brightened and lightened by a splash of tart lime juice and fresh scallions. Crunchy nuggets of fried hominy go up with wasabi peas and popcorn in the holy trinity of salty snacks. The unexpected gem is the crudo: a recent combo of raw fluke, yuzu, serrano chile, apple, and pungent mint was no macho plate but downright girly—silky, sexy, and impeccably dressed.
This is an early-to-rise town, aptly fond of the morning meal—and while it’s hard to beat the ricotta pancakes at BLD or an egg scramble at the Nickel Diner, the 15-month-old bakery/café Huckleberry (breakfast for two $30) takes the prize for L.A.’s best breakfast. Join the perpetual line snaking through the small dining room to the bakery counter and order a plump, crisp-edged doughnut dipped in Valrhona chocolate, or the platonic ideal of egg sandwiches, with Niman Ranch bacon, cave-aged Gruyère, arugula, and tangy aioli on buttered country bread. The rest of your day will thank you.
C: Church & State
At the forefront of Downtown’s dining renaissance is the cacophonous, freewheeling bistro Church & State (dinner for two $90), in the unlikely neighborhood of Skid Row, where chef Walter Manzke—whose star shone too briefly at Bastide a few years back—conjures ur-French classics: lard-cooked frites, house-made charcuterie, and a shockingly good tarte flambé with caramelized onions, smoked bacon, and molten Gruyère.
Like vintage Buicks and aging divas, old delicatessens preserve themselves well in the southern California sunshine. Canter’s, Nate ’n Al, Greenblatt’s: all unimpeachable specimens. But the sine qua non will always be 63-year-old Langer’s (pastrami sandwich $13), source of the finest pastrami this side of the Hudson. The meat—smoky around the edges, Kobe-tender, and bursting with beefy juice—requires not a smidge of seasoning, though mustard comes standard. And the rye...Good Lord, the rye: par-baked daily at Bea’s Bakery, in Tarzana, then finished in-house till it’s plush in the center but crisp at the crust. Finally there’s the setting: brass chandeliers on a dropped-panel ceiling; a malt machine; a case of cakes the size of truck wheels. Dare you? Yes. Yes, you do.